While this past summer’s shochu tour was a deep education into the production and culture surrounding shochu in the Prefectures around Kyushu, this winter’s trip to Tokyo was a crash course in the depth and breadth of izakaya culture in Japan’s largest city.
Tokyo, with a metro population estimated over 33 million people, makes New York feel small. As a NY resident, that’s a tough pill to swallow since we often believe we’re the center of the universe. We’re not. By many accounts, the center of the culinary universe is now Tokyo, Japan.
In fact, Tokyo now boasts more Michelin stars than the U.S., U.K., and France combined. One Michelin reviewer was rumored as saying that if they had the time and resources there would be 10,000 Michelin stars in Tokyo alone. The food culture has become the richest in the world.
But rather than treat myself to massively expensive dinners at some of the worlds top restaurants, I relied on a few Japanese friends and friendly and knowledgeable ex-pats to explore the culinary underbelly of this massive megaolopolis.
From the infamous Drunkard’s Alley (Nombe Yokocho) to the Golden Gai rabbit warren of bars based in some of the only pre-war buildings to survive in modern Tokyo to Piss Alley (Omoide Yokocho) to 5 story shochu bars tucked away in side alleys in Shibuya to the completely bizarrely local Katakata Shochu House (pictured), we managed to eat anything and everything put in front of us including some things I still can’t identify, washing it all down with draft beer and sweet potato shochu of massive variety. While not coming close to the 250 shochus sampled over the summer in Kyushu, there must have been 50 different varieties to cross my lips during the 6 days in the city.
A few stories will follow from each of these neighborhoods, but let’s start with Katakata, because it was probably the most bizarrely enjoyable moment of the trip. Ben, concierge at our hotel, personally escorted us to Shibuya in search of an authentic, local izakaya. The first place we hoped to go was closed (Japanese New Years is a several day affair), the next place was packed, so we wandered a bit before spotting the strangely named “Katakata Shochu House”, which lead upstairs to a tiny space with a handful of tables and a 4 or 5 seat bar.
The proprietress, a woman no younger than 70 and likely much much older, resolutely refused to allow us to enter until Ben, a 6’4″ Aussie with striking blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair, explained in fluent Australian-accented Japanese that we were not typical tourists, but izakaya and shochu lovers who had come to visit her establishment. She was still not entirely convinced until another in our party, a Tokyo native, spoke up as well. With a gruff shrug we were escorted to a corner table and told that westerners were known to cause trouble in Shibuya and she wouldn’t put up with any of it.
She slowly warmed to us as we ordered oyuwari imo shochu (something most tourists know nothing about) and a few otsumami (drinking snacks). She was further placated when we complimented her on the delicious food, which she proudly claimed she had recommended. She ran the place like a doting, but overbearing grandmother, scolding and praising customers, often in the same breath.
She became firmly committed to our cause when a table of drunken men next to us began asking us aggressively about where we were from and how we knew about shochu. We were happy to answer, but she shushed them into silence … that is until she stepped back into the kitchen and they renewed their inquiries. By the time she returned it was obvious all of us were enjoying the exchange so she let us be, but not without tutting at them a few more times.
By the time we’d finished our sojourn through her menu and exhausted her brief shochu list (the name is no doubt leftover from a bygone era when there were not bars offering 500+ shochus in Tokyo) she escorted us down to the street, shook our hands vigorously, bowed effusively, posed for photos, scolded us to check to see if we had all of our belongings, and asked us to come back soon.
I can’t say it was the best meal we had. It wasn’t. I can’t say it was the best shochu we had. It wasn’t. But I can say it encapsulates the warmth and character of the charming izakayas that persist even in a trendy fashion district like Shibuya.